Try, Try Again: Failure as a Building Block of STEM Success

By Kelli Recher, Science Educator, Marshall Math Science Academy, Harrisburg School District, Harrisburg, Pa. (@kellirecher)
Jun 26, 2019 4:50 PM ET
Blog

"I have not failed, not once. I've discovered ten thousand ways that don't work." – Thomas Edison

The most important way I help prepare my students for life outside of school is by teaching them how to fail. I tell them it’s OK if an experiment does not work the first time—as long as you learn from your mistakes, alter your model and try again. In my classrooms, I use computational thinking to help students learn from their failures. If a computer runs a code and it doesn’t work, the solution is not to give up, but to revise the code you have written and try again. 

Testing and refining initial models and experiments is a key part of innovation—as is overcoming challenges. If Einstein had given up on science after being expelled from school, rather than being resilient and continuing to experiment, would he have discovered the theory of relativity and become the father of modern physics? And if Vera Rubin had listened to the criticism of her male colleagues in the scientific field, would she have changed the way we think of the universe by discovering dark matter? 

In my classroom, I use a program called Ignite My Future in School to help my students’ experiment. An initiative powered by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Discovery Education, the program helps students explore the core values of computational thinking, including building and refining models. Resources such as the STEM Curriculum Connector offer ways for educators to incorporate computational thinking frameworks in the classroom, and Computational Thinking Resources include websites where students program interactive games and animations and try their hand at 3D design. 

I’ve seen firsthand how embracing the value of failing on your first attempt helps the girls in my classroom. According to polling data from The Atlantic, “the proportion of girls who say they are not allowed to fail rises from 18 to 45 percent from the ages of 12 to 13. In their efforts to please everyone, achieve more, and follow rules, many girls are actually nurturing traits in themselves that set them up to struggle in the long run.”

I help teach my students, especially girls, not to give up if their first attempt doesn’t go as planned. Computational thinking teaches them that mistakes are not failures—it means there is room for growth and improvement in their work.

One of the most rewarding parts of teaching is helping students gain confidence in their ideas, including the ones that don’t work the first time. By channeling their doubt into curiosity about a different outcome rather than fear of failure, my students are more open to taking risks and have more fun as they experiment.

For more information on Ignite My Future in School, visit ignitemyfutureinschool.org.